History of Persia

Persia has remained Mahometan ever since. During the centuries of Arab rule, the Persians gradually forgot their old fire-worshipping religion and became true believers in Mahomet; but they never forgot their old national glory and their unity as a nation. Persia's greatest poets belong to this period of her depression. It was not until 1499 that Persia regained political independence under a native ruler. A religious quarrel between opposing Mahometan sects brought Ismail, a Persian lad of eighteen, to the front as leader of one faction. A couple of boldly planned campaigns and battles placed him on the throne as Shah or Emperor of Persia; and the Persians, seeing in him their nationality revived, rallied eagerly to his support.

The country was seized by the Afghans in 1722; but a brigand chief, Nadir Kuli, a sort of Persian Robin Hood, gradually gathered strength in the northern mountains, fought the Afghans in many battles, and at last drove them from the country. He patriotically replaced the rightful monarch on the throne; but, growing disgusted with the dull inactivity of the court, he deposed his sovereign again, and assumed the royal authority himself. The old Persian dream of empire got hold of him. He conquered all the adjoining independent districts, and then seized Afghanistan and marched into India. Its capital, Delhi, was taken amid immense slaughter. The spoils included the famous "peacock throne," which is valued at thirteen million dollars, and is still preserved among the treasures of the Shah at Teheran. The great Mogul of India was compelled to purchase peace by a marriage between his daughter and the brigand's son.

Personally, Nadir was a big, handsome, athletic man, and his youthful adventures form a most interesting story, though the Persian's great love of romance has probably thrown a good deal of glamour around his robber life. In his old age an attempt was apparently made to assassinate him. A shot from among his own soldiers struck him as he was leading them in a brilliant battle. He became gloomy, suspicious, cruel, and was finally murdered by his subjects. There was no strong man to take his place; and the country fell into a state of confusion and civil war, which lasted until the establishment of the present Kazar or Turcoman dynasty by Aga-Mohammed, in 1794.

Aga-Mohammed had been a sub-king of the Turcomans in the north of Persia. In his youth he was maltreated and cruelly mutilated by Nadir Kuli; and throughout his long life he revenged himself on all mankind. He passed from one atrocity to another, until he degenerated into one of the most horrible monsters of crime and brutality that have polluted history. He had always been one of the contestants for the royal authority; but it was not until he was very aged that, in 1794, he overthrew the last of his rivals, and was generally acknowledged as Shah of Persia. Two or three years later, he was murdered by some of his servants, made desperate by fear for their own lives.

The date of Aga-Mohammed's accession may be considered as the beginning of modern Persia. He made his own northern city of Teheran capital of the entire country; and he and his successors have done much in the way of decorating it and adding to its beauty. It was in his time, too, that Persia first came in direct contact with the modern European nations.

The province of Georgia, famous in Eastern romance for the beauty of its women and the courage of its men, lay at the northern extremity of Persia, between the Caspian and the Black Sea. In 1783 its ruler, taking advantage of the general anarchy, declared himself independent of Persia, and appealed to Russia to protect him. There was no one to interfere at the moment, and he passed quietly under the Russian protectorate. As soon as Aga-Mohammed was firmly seated on the throne, he attempted to reclaim his rebellious vassal. War with Russia followed, and it was while on a campaign in this district that Mohammed was killed.

The Persians fought with valor and resolution; but they were no match for Russian numbers, aided as these were by modern discipline and cannon. The war was hopeless from the first; yet, in spite of repeated defeats, the Persians refused to make peace. They would not give up what they felt to be their just claim to Georgia, and year after year made incursions into the unhappy province. They yielded at last in 1813, but made a desperate attempt to regain the province in 1825. This second war ended in 1827, with a further loss of territory to them, the northern boundary becoming practically what it is today.

Against Turkey the Persians have been more fortunate. There was a short war between the countries in 1821, and the Persians won an important and bravely contested battle. They came in contact with England through their claims to Afghanistan, which was under a British protectorate. The Shahs could not forget that this wild district had been part of the domain of Nadir Kuli, and they made repeated efforts to reclaim it. In 1837 its capital, Herat, withstood their arms during a ten months' siege, its people being much helped by a few Englishmen within the walls.

This siege was chiefly notable for the part played in it by European diplomacy. A Russian envoy was constantly in the Shah's camp, urging him to continue the assault; while a British envoy was equally active in persuading him to desist. Finally, John Bull gained the best of the queer contest, and the siege was abandoned. In 1856 Herat was assailed again, and this time England actually declared war against Persia. A peace was patched up, however, before there was any serious fighting.

Since then Persia has been the centre of a constant diplomatic strife between English and Russian officials, each seeking to secure the ascendancy of his own nation. Gradually Persia has sunk to be a mere "buffer" state dividing the Asiatic empire of Russia from the "Indian Empire" of England to the south. The two great powers have even agreed to a division of the still nominally independent country into so-called "spheres of influence," the Russians assuming to direct affairs through all the northern half of Persia, and the English "advising" in most of what was left.

Then in 1905 Persia once more attracted the attention of the world. The Persians re-asserted their ancient love of liberty and arose in revolt against their own feeble government. The odd course of this revolution was largely shaped by the unofficial "influence" of the two European powers. The Persian Shah, Muzaffir-al-din, had been ruling solely in the interest of a few favored courtiers, who plundered the people with impunity. The robbery grew unbearable, and many of the Mahometan priests, or "Mollahs," in Teheran resorted to an ancient and peculiarly Persian form of protest called the "bast." They took refuge in a sacred shrine where religion would not permit the Shah's officers to seize them; and from there they vehemently voiced their protests. The Shah and his friends coaxed the priests into an abandonment of the "bast" by promising reforms. But these royal pledges proved empty words, and the revolt was renewed.

This time the bast took more serious form. Trusting no longer to the protection of their shrines, the protestors chose as their place of refuge the gardens of the English legation at Teheran. Hundreds of them gathered there, chief priests, prominent merchants, and influential citizens of every type. The refugees were supplied with food by friends, and the bast continued for several weeks. Probably this strange revolt would only have resulted in the execution of the protestors had they chosen any other shelter than the English legation; but the government dared not drag them thence, so at length the Shah's chief adviser, his grand vizier, or "Atabeg," again promised reforms. His assurances were derided by the rebels, until both the English and the Russian governments guaranteed that they would see that the pledges were kept. Then the bast ended, and in the fall of 1906 an assembly was convened and a Persian constitution was prepared.

On January 1, 1907, this constitution was accepted and proclaimed by the Shah. Persia ceased to be an absolute monarchy, a government controlled only by the conscience of its ruler and the loyalty of his subjects. The country had been thus governed ever since the days of Cyrus and Cambyses; now it became, in name at least, a limited or constitutional monarchy.

Unhappily this proved not the end, but only the beginning of the conflict and the tumult. A few days after the proclamation of the constitution the old Shah died, broken-hearted, said some, at having lost the loyalty of his people; poisoned, whispered others, by the reactionaries who made up his court. He was succeeded by his son, Mohammed Ali, who had no intention of submitting to the constitutional concessions of his father.

Indeed, from this point onward the Persian revolution reminds one most interestingly of the great French Revolution of 1789. We can trace the parallel step by step, in the moves of the reactionary monarch, the selfish aristocrats intrenched in power, the wavering, untried parliament, and the embittered people urged on by their local "committees" of patriots like the Paris Jacobin clubs of old. Every reform attempted by the new and unpractised parliament, or "medjliss," as it was called, was nullified by Mohammed Ali. The country was bankrupt, but every effort to tax the rich nobles of the court was defeated by them. Newspapers sprang up everywhere voicing the protest of the people in this struggle for liberty. The Medjliss itself proved powerless against the Shah, but throughout the country there sprang up secret "committees" whose members undertook the direction of the patriots.

In August, 1907, the Atabeg, or vizier, Azim, suspected of being the chief opponent of reform, was assassinated. So bitter did the people become against the Shah that his own partisans visited him in a body and warned him that he must obey the constitution or they also would desert him.

Mohammed Ali then resolved on a "coup d'etat." He had a police force in Teheran consisting of a brigade of wild cossacks whose faithfulness, or rather on whose antagonism to the citizens, he felt he could rely. In June, 1908, the cossacks arrested some of the patriots; there was armed resistance, men were slain on both sides, and the Shah promptly declared the parliament dissolved. The armed cossacks expelled the members from the meeting chamber, and many of the chief patriots were arrested. There was confused fighting in the streets; the parliament house was burned, and some two thousand lives sacrificed in blood. But the unready citizens proved no match for the cossack brigade, and the capital soon lay helpless in the grasp of its ruler.

In his restored power the Shah appealed to the religious prejudices of his people. One of the most difficult problems which had distracted the Medjliss was that of religious toleration, of allowing others than mahometans to vote. The franchise had finally been granted to all. This the Shah now declared to be an infringement of the law of Allah; "unbelievers" could not be permitted to rule believers. The entire revolt was asserted to be the work of the Babites a religious sect opposed to Mahometanism. Allah was said to disapprove of any plan for limiting the will of His divinely-appointed rulers. And finally the Shah announced that the whole constitution was irreligious, and was therefore cancelled.

Rebellion flew to arms. The capital was helpless, but the great northern city of Tabriz was seized by the revolutionists. The Shah's cossacks attacked it, and it withstood a regular siege for almost a year, from June, 1908, to April, 1909. Just as starvation seemed about to compel the surrender of the city, the Russian government interfered and sent troops to protect the citizens. Then the cossacks withdrew.

Russia's attitude encouraged other revolutionists. Most notable of these were a strong semi-independent tribe, the Bakhtiaris, who now declared against the Shah, and an energetic guerilla official, commonly known as the Sipahdar. The Sipahdar led a strong force of revolutionists against the capital, defeated the cossack brigade beneath its walls, and entered the city in triumph as a deliverer

The constitutional monarchy was restored; the Sipahdar became Minister of Ward under the new government; the Shah abdicated and was driven into exile, and his little son, seven years old, was proclaimed Shah as Ahmed Mirza. The child king did not want to leave his father and mother and cried drearily over his elevation in rank. When he was taken to the Russian consulate for protection, the officials there warned him with mock severity that nobody was allowed to cry within those walls. The unhappy little monarch checked his tears, and with his baby mind thus roused to self-control he has since solemnly accepted whatever came to him.

The new government has not found its pathway easy. The first regent appointed to govern in the name of the child Shah died, and was succeeded by a noted patriot Nasr-el-Mulk, who had been banished, and who was now with difficulty persuaded to leave his comfortable exile in Paris and return to trouble ridden Persia. The financial problems confronting the government were enormous; jangling political parties found it impossible to agree; the guerilla bands which has everywhere sprung up in rebellion against the old Shah refused to disperse. England warned the government that if trade and travel were not made safe along the roads, she would have to interfere and enforce order within her "sphere". Finally, to cap the climax, the banished Shah, Mohammed Ali, landed suddenly in northern Persia with a fore of cossacks and attempted to regain his throne (July, 1911).

This invasion and counter-revolution resulted in the most vigorous fighting the upheaval had yet caused. Mohammed Ali's forces were met by the Bakhtiaris, the powerful nomadic tribe who were upholding the new government. Trustworthy details of the struggle never reached the outside world, but probably about a thousand cossacks faced some three thousand Bakhtiari warriors in several fierce battles. Finally Mohammed Ali was completely defeated, and led almost alone to safety in Russia.

The Persians accused Russia of having inspired this invasion. Indeed, many Persians began to suspect both Russia and England of deliberately fomenting all the confusion of the distracted country, so as to have excuse for taking forcible possession of the land. Persia appealed to the United States government to send her a financial advisor; and Mr. Morgan Shuster, recommended by President Taft, undertook the work in 1910.

His energetic handling of the Persian treasury soon placed the country in a far better monetary position; but he came into sharp conflict with the Russian interests. The American view of the matter can not but be one of sympathy with Mr. Shuster, though we must remember that he was in Persia as a private citizen and in no way officially representing or upheld by the United States. After the repulse of Mohammed Ali's invasion the ex-Shah's property and that of his chief supporters was confiscated by the Persian government. In one of the palaces some Russian officials claimed that the property had been mortgaged to their country, and they refused to surrender possession of the palace. To American views, this defiance of the order of a sovereign government, this assertion of personal physical force rather than submission and presentation of the matter to the courts of justice, seems wholly wrong. So thought Mr. Shuster, and he had the government police take forcible possession of the disputed property. Russia. Long dissatisfied with Shuster's regime, made this the reason for demanding his dismissal.

The Persians believed in Shuster. They were a unit in refusing Russia's demand. They were still, said they, an independent nation and would not have their officials appointed or dismissed by foreign powers. Russia backed her command by armed force, by an invasion. The Persians appealed to England to protect their independence, but Russia promised solemnly not to seize Persian territory, and England refused to interfere. The Persian parliament, or "Medjliss," repeatedly declared they would not sign away their country's freedom by obeying Russia's dictation. Persian soldiers resisted Russia's advance desperately, but helplessly. The regent and his cabinet urged submission. Finally they sent troops who expelled the parliament members from their chamber amid more bloodshed.

Constitutional government was thus a second time overthrown by irresponsible power. The regent announced Persia's full acceptance of Russia's dictates and dismissed Shuster from office and from the country. Even this did not check the advance of the Russian troops. They insisted on vengeance for the losses they had suffered from the Persians who had resisted their invasion. They seized the western capital, Tiflis, and slew several hundred people there. The leader of the troops who had resisted them, they hanged. Early in 0912 Russian troops took entire possession of two of the northern Persian provinces including the "holy city" Meshed. The Russian government still issues assurances that this occupation is only temporary England seemed acting in harmony with Russia. Two powers united in 1912 in compelling Persia to acknowledge their "sphere of influence," and to dismiss the irregular forces, the Bakhtiaris and other similar tribes which have done all of Persia's effective fighting for her. She was even compelled to pay a pension to the Shah whom she expelled. Russia and England began discussing plans for constructing a railway from end to end of Persia, from Russian territory of India. The unhappy land lies helpless, still nominally an independent kingdom, but really a province helpless in the grip of the European powers, which are struggling over her helpless body.

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